If Two Countries Waged Cyber War On Each Other, Here’s What To Expect

Tuesday, August 9, 2016
By Paul Martin

By Bill Buchanan, Edinburgh Napier University
AUGUST 9, 2016

Imagine you woke up to discover a massive cyber attack on your country. All government data has been destroyed, taking out healthcare records, birth certificates, social care records and so much more. The transport system isn’t working, traffic lights are blank, immigration is in chaos and all tax records have disappeared. The Internet has been reduced to an error message and daily life as you know it has halted.

This might sound fanciful but don’t be so sure. When countries declare war on one another in future, this sort of disaster might be the opportunity the enemy is looking for. The internet has brought us many great things but it has made us more vulnerable. Protecting against such futuristic violence is one of the key challenges of the 21st century.

Strategists know that the most fragile part of Internet infrastructure is the energy supply. The starting point in serious cyber warfare may well be to trip the power stations which power the data centres involved with the core routing elements of the network.

Back-up generators and uninterruptible power supplies might offer protection, but they don’t always work and can potentially be hacked. In any case, backup power is usually designed to shut off after a few hours. That is enough time to correct a normal fault, but cyber attacks might require backup for days or even weeks.

William Cohen, the former US secretary of defence, recently predicted such a major outage would cause large-scale economic damage and civil unrest throughout a country. In a war situation, this could be enough to bring about defeat. Janet Napolitano, a former secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security, believes the American system is not well enough protected to avoid this.

Denial of service

An attack on the national grid could involve what is called a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. These use multiple computers to flood a system with information from many sources at the same time. This could make it easier for hackers to neutralise the backup power and tripping the system.

DDoS attacks are also a major threat in their own right. They could overload the main network gateways of a country and cause major outages. Such attacks are commonplace against the private sector, particularly finance companies. Akamai Technologies, which controls 30% of internet traffic, recently said these are the most worrying kind of attack and becoming ever more sophisticated.

Akamai recently monitored a sustained attack against a media outlet of 363 gigabits per second (Gbps) – a scale which few companies, let alone a nation, could cope with for long. Networks specialist Verisign reports a shocking 111% increase in DDoS attacks per year, almost half of them over 10 Gbps in scale – much more powerful than previously. The top sources are Vietnam, Brazil and Colombia.

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